We'll be hosting our biggest-ever Science Uncovered on Friday 27 September 2013. At the Museum in London and the Museum in Tring, our scientists and visiting experts will gather across galleries and outdoors in a fabulous show of displays, tours, experiments, challenges, discussions and more.
On 13 Feb a new temporary exhibition opened here at the Museum entitled Britain: one million years of the human story. It includes some images of microfossils from our collection in the display.
Scanning electron microscope (SEM) images of pollen grains from our collection that appear in the exhibition.
These and other microfossil collections housed behind the scenes help with dating the finds, reconstructing the environment, landscape and climate of these first human settlements in Britain and provide the climatic context for the recent discovery of the earliest human footprints in Britain on a Norfolk beach.
The AHOB Project and micropalaeontology
The exhibition highlights the work of the Ancient Human Occupation of Britain (AHOB) Project and its predecessor projects. The current project, funded by Calleva, is investigating the timing and nature of human occupation of the British Isles, the technology they used, their behaviour, the environment they lived in and the fauna sharing the landscape. The microfaunas and floras mentioned here were recovered by project researcher Mark Lewis and project associate member John Whittaker.
Mark is a palynologist and has used the distribution of pollen grains in the sediments surrounding the human finds to interpret ancient climates and landscapes. Pollen grains that range in size from 10-100 microns can be found in sediments millions of years after the plants that produced them have died and decayed.
The Museum collections
Mark regularly uses our collection of modern pollen and spores to interpret the pollen floras that he recovers as part of the AHOB Project. We recently transferred this collection from the Botany Department and the images in the exhibition were taken from the collection of SEM prints and negatives that accompanies that collection.
Part of our modern pollen collection. Slides are housed in special plastic sleeves and arranged by plant family name.
John Whittaker spent his entire career as a researcher here at the Museum and is a now a Scientific Associate in the Earth Sciences Department as well as being an Associate Member of the AHOB Project. In a previous blog post I highlighted his microfossil finds from three key early human sites at Boxgrove about 500,000 years old, Pakefield about 700,000 years old and Happisburgh (prounced Haze-boro) about 900,000 years old. Many of John Whittaker's microfossil slides are deposited here at the Museum.
The pollen grain illustrations from the exhibition were chosen because of their use and importance in reconstructing ancient environments, particularly the vegetation dominating the landscapes in which the ancient humans lived. The scanning electron microscope images shown above from left to right are:
1. Dandelion-type e.g. Taraxacum - this herb indicates dry grassland or disturbed open ground
2. Dwarf willow, Salix herbacea - characteristic of rocky, open ground as found during cold periods
3. Montpellier maple, Acer monspessulanum - currently native to the Mediterranean and central Europe, this tree was present in Britain only during the last (Ipswichian) interglacial about 125,000 years ago
4. Bogbean, Menyanthes trifoliata - shallow water inhabitant of bogs and fens during both temperate and cold periods
5. Common valerian, Valeriana officinalis - herb indicating either dry or damp grassland as well as rough ground
Environments of deposition of sediments
Ostracods and Foraminifera collected by John Whittaker from Boxgrove indicate a marine raised beach and a later terrestrial deposit with freshwater ponds below chalk cliffs.
The saltmarsh foraminiferal species Jadammina macrescens has been recovered from Happisburgh and is consistent with interpretations that the site is situated near the mouth of the ancient large river, possibly the River Thames.
The microfossils were able to show that the Slindon Sands were deposited in a wholly marine high-energy environment, whereas the Slindon Silts were deposited in a shallow intertidal environment at the margin of a regressive sea. This sort of information is vital when interpreting the archaeological finds from the site.
River sediments containing flint artefacts have been found on the coast of East Anglia at Pakefield. The oldest artefacts came from the upper levels of estuarine silts where both marine and brackish ostracods and foraminifera have been recovered.
Other evidence from mammal, beetle and plant remains suggests a setting on the floodplain of a slow flowing river where marshy areas were common. The river sediments were deposited during a previously unrecognised warm stage (interglacial) and the presence of several warmth loving plants and animals suggests that the climate was similar to that in present day southern Europe.
Pollen and mammal fossils recovered from Happisburgh suggest that the climate was similar to that of southern Sweden and Norway of today with extensive conifer forest and grasslands. The floodplains were roamed by herds of mammoth and horses. Foraminifera such as the species Ammonia batavus are characteristic of warmer climates.
Evidence of reworking of some sediments
The interglacial sediments at Pakefield are overlain by a thick sequence of glacial deposits which include till and outwash sands and gravels. These contain reworked (Cretaceous and Neogene) microfossils transported from the North Sea Basin by glaciers. This is important information as fossils found in these redeposited sediments could be give false indications as to the climatic setting and dating of any finds.
The dating of the deposit at Happisburgh is provided by a combination of mammoth, horse, beetle and vole finds as well as the Middle Pleistocene ostracod Scordiscia marinae. Work by John Whittaker and the AHOB team at a number of other Pleistocene sites across the SE of Britain has increased the potential of ostracods as tools for dating these sediments.
The extinct freshwater ostracod Scordiscia marinae has been found at both Pakefield and Boxgrove and is
characteristic of the Middle Pleistocene period. An example of a microfossil that is useful for dating sediments.
A flint handaxe recovered from sediments recently exposed on the foreshore at Happisburgh provides part of the evidence for the earliest human occupation of Britain. Several other Palaeolithic sites have since been discovered there including sets of early human footprints on the foreshore that made the national news at the time of the opening of the exhibition.
A Palaeogeographic map of Britain the in Early Pleistocene showing the land bridge between Europe and the position of the Thames and Bytham rivers. (Courtesy of Simon Parfitt and the AHOB Project)
Pollen analysis of the sediments adjoining the footprints revealed the local vegetation consisted of an open coniferous forest of pine (Pinus), spruce (Picea), with some birch (Betula). There were some wetter areas where Alder (Alnus) was growing; patches of heath and grassland were also present. These all indicate a cooler climate typical of the beginning or the end of an interglacial recognised at other Happisburgh sites.
Come and see the exhibition
I would recommend that you come and see the exhibition Britain: one million years of the human story if you can, before it closes at the end of September. If you can't then there are a wealth of interesting items on the Museum website including a video showing the recently discovered footprints.
Quite rightly the artefacts and larger fossil materials collected from these early human sites in Britain dominate the exhibition along with the amazing life-sized models like 'Ned the Neanderthal'. Hopefully this post has shown that there are many other undisplayed collections held behind the scenes here at the Museum that are just as important in telling us how, when and where the earliest humans lived in Britain.
From Canta, a road goes up the Río Chillon to Cerro de Pasco and the eastern side of the Andes – crossing over the high elevation grassland habitat called the puna. Several wild potatoes grow in these extreme habitats above or around 4,000 metres elevation – these were our targets for the day. We leave the tomatoes behind for the day - none grow this high!
Looking back down the valley we saw Canta perched on its hill, plus the line of dusty, smoggy air from Lima and the coast... we were pleased to be up in the fresh air!
As we climbed up the switchbacks (ubiquitious in the Andes) we spotted our first Solanaceae of the day – and it was a new distribution record for the valley…
Salpichroa microloba is endemic to central Peru but had never before been collected in this valley – Paul was excited – this genus is the topic of his Master’s thesis. He also managed to spot a hummingbird visiting the flowers…
A colleague had told us that the diversity of insects above 1,000 metres elevation was poor – so here is a photo of the GPS (registering 3,327m elevation) and vial of insects to prove the point. Insect life teems at high elevations, and it is usually interesting and often endemic.
Further up the valley opened out, and the Río Chillon rushed through – along the banks we found Solanum amblophyllum, previously thought to be an endemic of Lima department, but recently found in neighbouring Ancash by our colleague from the Museo, Asunción Cano.
Solanum amblophyllum is a member of the Geminata clade that I revised last in 2008 – there are several new species to describe (I wrote about some of these from Brazil last year), but it is great to see ones that I recognise in the field. It was VERY common along the river amongst boulders and grass…
The Río Chillon is a typical mountain river, crashing through gorges and with extremely rapid flow. Along the banks we saw Andean torrent ducks – two males posturing to each other… the female was being swept downstream (apparently, although she was probably completely under control) and the males seemed too busy to notice.
We had a forced stop at the small village of Cullhuay where pipes were being installed – we had to wait about half an hour then drive across a ditch over two very narrow planks – Dan was the driver for the day and he managed with great aplomb.
Putting in the pipes involves a lot of manual labour – pipes in lengths of 5-8 metres being carried from the village below (by hand of course) and a lot of shovel work, but by the time we came down they were done and the ditch was all filled in!
Cullhauy was the last village on the road, further up there were only isolated houses and stone corrals where livestock are kept overnight. The whole grassy area operates like a common, where local people take their cattle or llamas out for the day to graze and then bring them back at night to protect them from pumas. Other exciting wildlife exists in these high mountains as well – much to our excitement we saw a huge bird circling the valley – an Andean condor – as big as the cattle on the slopes! So amazing – I have been to Peru many times and have never seen a condor there before…
The picture is a bit fuzzy (sorry about that but it was a long way away across the valley) but the white collar and huge wingspan is unmistakeable – it was HUGE.
About where we saw the condor we found populations of our target potato species – so had a nice long collecting stop. The sun was still out so the insects were plentiful and Erica found that the aspirator worked a treat on the small, flat rosettes of these high elevation species. We were near the treeline, although the trees were long gone, mostly cut for firewood. These areas were at one time probably forested with small patches of Polylepis (a member of the rose family) woodland in sheltered valleys – very few of these forest patches remain in these populated valleys.
Solanum acaule is a relatively common potato species at these high elevations – we have collected it before in southern Peru; the leaves hug tightly to the ground and the tiny flowers have big, bright green stigmas.
We are not quite sure what species this is – the flowers are much bigger than those of Solanum acaule, and the leaves are different as well. When collecting it is important to keep things you think are different apart, even if they turn out to be the same in the end. This one is a different species though… I am sending a photo (and later the specimen) to my colleague David Spooner in Wisconsin to see if he can help!
Further up the road, the mountains proper began to show themselves – this range is called the Cordillera de la Viuda (Window’s Range - the name makes you wonder...) and the tallest peaks are all above 5,000 metres in elevation (the tallest, Rajuntay, is 5,475 m).
Cordillera de la Viuda - this range extends for about 50 miles and has several very tall peaks that are permanently snow-covered.
This high up there is little vegetation over a few centimetres tall, the plants are either grasses, or small and hugging the ground as rosettes or hidden in the shelter of rocks. The lack of vegetation cover allows one to really appreciate the complex and totally breath-taking geology of the Andes. The Andean mountain range is the result of the subduction of the Pacific plate under the continental margin and was pushed up and crumpled over the course of millions of years. The southern Andes are older than the ranges to the north – in Canta we were about in the middle. The range is between 10-30 million years old, relatively young in geological terms.
Driving along high mountain roads you can pass sections that are crumpled one way, then around the corner, other sections going in the opposite direction – this really brings home the dynamic and ever-changing nature of the earth we live on – it is not static and unchanging in the least!
Paul, Dan and Mindy with nearly vertical strata behind…
The scenery in these high elevation habitats is not to be believed – I love the jungle and the dense forest, but the sense of space and openness at high elevation is special. At this point we were about 4,700 metres above sea level – the air is pretty thin up that high so running about is not to be recommended.
The region in the Cordillera de la Viuda is peppered with tiny (and not so tiny) lakes with the most extraordinary colours and perfectly clear water.
We were lucky to see viscachas – a lagomorph (rabbit relative) endemic to South America. This species is the northern viscachaLagidium peruanum) – known only from these high elevation habitats from central Peru to northern Chile. They look a bit like giant kangaroo rats, or gerbils. Again, like the condor, this picture is a bit fuzzy, they were hard to get close to!
Sadly, even along this remote road you can still find the traces of humans – not just archeological remains, but more prosaic garbage. What in heaven’s name is a broom head doing far from the road amongst the cushion plants? In this climate it will be there for a long, long time…
The road climbed ever higher, but at about 4,800 metres it flattened out and began to go down – we decided to turn back – it was rumbling with thunder and began to hail. Erica and Dan had enough insects to keep them busy for hours and hours…
The “pass” was more like a broad flat area; llamas and alpacas were grazing here, it was a bit high for cattle.
The hail on the top was a portent of things to come. The valley on the way back down was completely under cloud – in fact, it felt like we were IN the cloud, which I suppose we were in fact. At times the road wasn’t really visible, good job there was absolutely no traffic.
The road was dirt and usually a single lane with drop-offs on one side and cliffs on the other, so the lack of traffic was actually a good thing. This is the view of the road (you can see it, can't you?) from the front seat. We saw several rock slides that I don’t remember from the way up… our mascot (San Martin de Porres I think) was clearly helping...
Back at the Hostal Santa Catalina Erica and Dan had several hours of insect prep to do, Paul, Mindy and I had the plants to prepare and put on the dryer – so we had a busy last evening in Canta. Tomorrow I return to Lima to fly out the next day back to London – the rest of the team is headed into the next valley north to go up again. That is travel in the Andes for you; up and down, up and down. They will drop me off on the Panamerican Highway near the coast and I will catch a bus or taxi back into Lima.
I wish I were going with them...
As part of my job I often work with other curators and museum professionals. Part of having such a good network of colleagues is that we can learn from each other (us 'experts' don't know everything!).
Back in January (27th - 31st), I had the pleasure of the assistance of Alex Peaker who is a palaeontologist at Dinosaur Isle Museum on the Isle of Wight. Alex wanted to come to the Palaeontology Section to see how we document our specimens and deal with research visitors.
Here Alex tells us a bit about his job at Dinosaur Isle Museum and what he got up to during the week...
Dinosaur Isle is a museum that promotes the wealth of geology and palaeontology that can be found on the Isle of Wight. It displays a particularly fantastic collection of local dinosaur finds.
In a normal day's work I mostly deal with curation of the collection, spending much of my time documenting specimens into our electronic database, working with associated documentation, assisting with any enquiries, and facilitating research on our specimens.
Last year I had the fantastic opportunity to work for the museum with the Isle of Wight Destination Management Organisation, BBC, and 20th Century Fox, teaming together to work on promotion for the recently-released film Walking with Dinosaurs - the 3d movie. The result saw the creation of the Dinosaur Island augmented reality app, which has been a fantastic success in promoting the movie, the island, and our dinosaurs.
Recently I was given the chance to spend a week working at the Natural History Museum, which was greatly appreciated; the time that I spent there was absolutely amazing. The reason for the trip was to further my ability in curation, to work with people who have a wealth of experience in the area and to see how our practices compare to that of a national museum.
It was great to be able to work with such an amazing collection, and often with fossils that I have only seen in books. Virtually every drawer I opened seemed to have either a type fossil (the single specimen designated by an author to formally describe a new species), or something with an interesting history (e.g. donated by Sir Richard Owen). My personal favourites were a large Brychaetus (prehistoric bony fish) skull from the Isle of Sheppey, and a particularly large megalodon tooth (everybody loves a big shark, but even for megalodon this one was a real beast).
Large Brychaetus skull (NHMUK PV P 3893), found from the Isle of Sheppey, UK.
Megalodon tooth (NHMUK PV P 14534), found in Virgina, USA.
I was also given a chance to visit the Cephalopod and Brachiopod Section with Zoe Hughes, which was very interesting. I was shown some fantastic fossils including an amazing squid showing preservation of all of its soft tissue, and was even privileged enough to have a viewing of the 'Royal Brachiopod' (a fossil collected by Darwin on the Falklands that is often used as an example to royal visitors).
Thankfully the procedures set up at the Museum are very similar to those that I would work by at Dinosaur Isle but with some differences, most of which seem to derive from the size of the collections and slightly different collection policies (apart from a few comparative pieces, our collection holds exclusively Isle of Wight fossils whereas the Museum collects specimens from all over the world).
I learnt a lot in a week at the Museum with much of my newly-gained experience already having been a help at Dinosaur Isle. It was great to work with a fantastic group of people who were incredibly helpful and showed me a lot of great things.
Alex photographing shark fin spines we brought back from Morocco.
Thanks very much to Alex for all his help during the week. He helped to document a lot of the specimens we collected whilst in Morocco and locate several specimens connected with our upcoming Sir Arthur Smith Woodward Symposium. I also learnt from Alex by discussing how he carries tasks out at Dinosaur Isle.
Having survived the public transport ride up to the village of Canta and joined the rest of the team, we set off bright and early to look for more Solanaceae and their critters. Since Mindy, Dan, Erica and Paul had gone down the valley the day before, we decided to go up to the town of Obrajillo – worth a teensy mention in Dan’s guidebook as “oozing with colonial charm”.
Definitely a colonial village, but pretty run down at the heels – this Merc was up on posts and had bags of grain in the front seat. There must be action here though during the foggy, cold season in Lima (September-October time) – hip hop is being advertised in the door behind the car!
We drove up beyond the town on a small dirt track that suddenly became a non-road – no harm done, but a bit of pushing was involved! The sun was shining and the insects were out – perfect conditions. Also perfect for sunburn… the sun at 2,900 metres elevation is pretty intense, and without sunscreen we pallid Europeans burn fast!
Mindy and Paul looking for plants behind a somewhat random-seeming monument to the battle fought on the 2nd of May… Not in Obrajillo of course, but somewhere far away (in Callao on the coast near Lima in 1866 to be exact).
Since it had rained early in the afternoon the day before we decided to walk up spotting targets, then come back down collecting. The entomologists got to try out all their methods…
Erica sweeping with wild abandon in a patch of potato wild relatives…
Dan and Erica peering into their nets to see what they caught on the Solanum basendopogon that was creeping through the shrub on the right of the path…
Erica sussing out just where to start suctioning up insects from a Jaltomata species growing against some rocks by the trail – the aspirator is basically a small, gentle hoover that sucks up anything on the leaves into a cup with a filter of gauze in the bottom, pop the top on and then sort it out in the evening!
One of the species we found here was Solanum habrochaites – a wild tomato relative – that the team had also collected from last year. This will be great for looking at the geographical distribution of insect communities on the same species – will the locality or the host species be the most important determinant of the insect communities association with the plants? Only by collecting from the same species in different localities (ideally at the same time of year) will we be able to start teasing apart these patterns.
Solanum habrochaites occurs from Ecuador to central Peru and is quite variable in elevation and habit. It is an important wild tomato relative and has been used in the past to introduce new variation in the cultivated tomato for fruit sugar content. The sticky hairs all over the plant have a distinctive smell and could also be useful for plant breeders for insect resistance (the white dot on the flower is a white fly!).
About lunchtime a group of local people assembled in the valley below for a barbeque and dance/sing-along – Andean flute music and dancing. It was pretty atmospheric…
The men on the rock in brightly colored ponchos did a sort of hand-waving dance – it looked good fun!
Well – it began to rain… earlier than the day before – so we headed back. Insect collecting with wet nets is just not possible. I begged though, and we went back to a spot we had seen a tomato relative not yet collected in the morning – it wasn’t actually raining (my logic ran…).
Mindy showing just how big some of these tomato wild relatives can get – this one is Solanum corneliomulleri, a species that occurs in central Peru at higher elevations that we had not yet sampled from – so I was glad we had tried! We had collected this species in 2012, but no insects were collected on that trip…
Paul and Mindy pressed these last specimens and then we headed back to the hotel to sort the day’s catch, write up the notes, check our localities on Google Earth and otherwise get the plants onto the drier.
Paul and Mindy emerging from the mist with the press full of solanums.
The kind people in the hotel let us use the restaurant to sort out insects – amazingly even while other guests were ordering dinner… we definitely recommend the Hostal Santa Catarina in Canta for biological field work!
We set up our trusty gas plant drier (repaired by Tiina and Maria after our slight fire incident last year) in an unused communal bathroom… it works just a well as ever!
Tomorrow it is up to the puna – to find the high elevation potato wild relatives, and for me, to see if I can find some more interesting Solanum endemics… We will have to start out early to avoid the rain… can’t wait!
In the bad old days, biologists from places like the Museum would just go to a country, collect and then bring everything home. This was great for building our collections, but bad for the country involved. It didn’t help build up capacity in-country for biological inventory and understanding at all; many of the places the early explorers went were only just beginning to develop academic communities of their own. Things are different now though – and for the better.
The Convention on Biological Diversity that was negotiated by the world’s governments in 1992 and subsequently ratified by most countries has meant, among other things, that permission to collect in countries not your own must be sought from the relevant authorities. This might seem like a bit of a pain – but what it does is gets you in contact with local scientists and tends to lead to some great collaborations! In Peru we have our research and collecting permits for both of our projects from the Dirección Forestal y de Fauna Silvestre of the Ministerio de Agricultura y de Rienda (Ministry of Agriculture and Water). The process is very straightforward; it involves a project plan, a list of people involved, and a promise to leave half the collected material in Peru. Sensible.
DNA permits - a different beast
For much of our work, however, we want to use DNA sequence data to look at evolutionary relationships for both the plants and the insects. This means we need a different and additional permit – a permit for use of genetic resources. All DNA has been identified as 'genetic resource' regardless of use. In a way this has created a huge problem for evolutionary biologists like us. Our use of DNA data has been equated with the plant samples kept in gene banks. So genetic resources permits can be notoriously difficult to negotiate and obtain.
We submitted our application of the DNA extraction from all Solanaceae and all insects associated with them in early December of last year, made some corrections based on observations from the people in the Ministry, and to my amazement and total surprise we were granted permission to extract DNA from specimens of Solanaceae and their associated insects we collect in Peru for evolutionary analysis! I signed a contract with the Ministry affirming each other’s rights and responsibilities in Lima, then headed for the mountains to join the team.
We really appreciate the efforts our colleagues at the Museo in Lima have made to help guide all these permissions through the system, and the efforts our colleagues at the Ministry have made to allow the genetic resources permit to be granted. I am really excited about the future collaborations we will have, and the new data and hypotheses we can generate. Doing all the permissions the right way has taken time, but I feel it has us all on a good solid, collaborative base for developing the research in the future.
Off into the field
The next day off I went to join the rest of the team – Erica, Mindy, Dan and Paul had gone to Canta the same day I had to stay in Lima to sign the genetic resources contract – so I followed by public transport, always exciting in Peru.
The car I got a seat in was old, bottomed out at every bump in the dirt road, and had a completely cracked windscreen. I might know why… the road from Lima to Canta was being repaired and widened in a number of places so there were lots of stops – at one of them several men were up the side of the hill pushing rocks down with sticks – no dynamite here, just manpower!
The driver of our 'colectivo' got a bit impatient, and zoomed through – despite rocks skittering down the slope. Not great. But we made it to Canta, I found the team, whose day had been Solanum-filled and wonderful. I can’t wait to go out tomorrow!!
Posted on behalf of Sandy Knapp, Museum botanist on a research and collecting trip to Peru.